Ask yourself the following: 1) Are you American? Don't worry, we won't hold it against you. 2) Do you like sports? If you answered 'no' to either of these questions, you're unlikely to play NBA 2K13 this year. Shame, because from what I've seen, it's shaping up to the one of - if not the - best game of the year.
I was like you once. Never played basketball, never showed any interest in it, never even knew the rules. The New York Knicks, for me, only existed on other people's baseball caps. Back when I was a student, I took a chance on NBA 2K on Dreamcast, and although I loved it - playing it for hours instead of writing about post-modernist literary theory, as you do - my interest lapsed until 2K11. Since then, it's been my not-so-secret obsession. I've sunk more hours into NBA 2K12's My Player mode than Skyrim, Battlefield 3 and Mass Effect 3 combined. When people ask, I just say: "Hey, it's my FIFA". Except that doesn't really explain the dark depth of my admiration for the series.
Having sunk 150 hours into 2K12, largely in My Player mode, I jumped at the chance to sit down with NBA 2K13. And so, last week, a very nice man from the development team talked me through the new game and let me score a few baskets on the unsuspecting blogger that was also sitting in on the demo. What I saw reinforced all my opinions about the game, and demonstrated just how far ahead of the curve 2K13 really is.
This year, the off-court focus (that's a fancy way of describing the stuff that happens when you're not playing the game) is all about the lifestyle of basketball. Regular readers, and anyone who actually plays 2K, will know that Jay-Z has signed on as executive producer of the game. With most games, this is little more than a cynical ploy to get a celebrity name on the box: 'Wazzo Racer 4 - featuring executive producer H from Steps'.
In 2K13's case, though, Jay-Z has gotten properly involved. Yes, that means the soundtrack - which he selected himself - contains plenty of Jay-Z tracks (thank Christ that Jason Mraz wasn't executive producing), but it also means a number of other things. Until this year, legends like Charles Barkley and Allen Iverson simply wouldn't get involved with video games, but a swift phone call from 2K's new exec producer, and they're on board.
Jay-Z's level of influence over the radical overhaul of My Player mode, which is now My Career, is uncertain. In a way, it doesn't even matter. All you need to know is this: My Career is likely to be the best career mode in any game, ever. And that's at the heart of why I personally love the 2K series. It's the equivalent of building up your Dovakin over 150 hours of Skyrim, or unlocking all the killer kit in COD or Battlefield 3. It's building an incredible level in LittleBigPlanet over a period of months, or unlocking every car in Gran Turismo 5.
The persona you create in My Career is a vessel into which you pour all your hopes for the game. Where the 2K series triumphs so utterly is in facilitating your created player, in making him feel like the centre of the universe.
This year, for example, there are over 1,400 items to dress your player in. Everything sold in the official NBA store is included, and pretty much every knee-pad, headband and set of ridiculous goggles worn by players can be transplanted onto your on-screen likeness. That goes for his on-court appearance, and his between-game appearances where only a hideous velvet suit with massive designer glasses will do.
Once your player is created (a process that lets you tweak an incredible number of variables), they get drafted after playing a pre-career game and doing some interviews with the general managers of interested NBA teams. Right from the start, you get the sense that your whole career is just beginning, and it's actually exciting watching the in-game draft to see which team has taken a chance on your young talent.
And it's here where the game truly begins, because My Career reacts to everything you do. Everything. Have a great scoring game, and the commentators will not only talk you up during that game, they'll also discuss your performance during your next game. Team on a losing streak? Expect to hear an earful from the pundits about not only the need to improve, but what you're doing wrong and how you should be playing.
There were times during 2K12 when the commentary team said stuff that felt like digital voodoo - how did they know how I was planning to improve my defence, or why I was frustrated with my mid-range shooting? What truly boggles the mind is how rarely you'll hear dialogue repeated, even if you play for several seasons.
It creates a sense of wonder and engagement you simply don't find in other games. Even FIFA - which has superb commentary - doesn't feel like it's truly reacting to how you play. And the more you play, the better you get. Just like levelling up in a massive RPG you get attribute points to improve your large array of skills, and because there are so many stats to boost, you can properly tailor your player to suit your style. Yes, loads of games say that, but few really mean it.
Want to make a player in the image of Kevin Garnett - a big with a killer mid-range shot and a smart head for staying out of foul trouble? You can do that. Fancy yourself as a Kevin Love figure, who can rebound and shoot 3-pointers at will? Yup. This year the dunk packages you can buy have been broken down into smaller chunks, so you can mix and match. You can posterize like Griffin, but do standing dunks like Howard. It's all you, you, you.
See, NBA 2K combines the intimacy and depth of a single-player RPG experience with the never-the-same twice appeal of a sports game, and the inclusive community feel of the best online experiences. In one mode. That's why I play for 100s of hours, because I'm constantly engaged. It's purely selfish, but why the hell not - games should put me on a pedestal, not the other way around. And in an age where games cost £50 and vie for our attention alongside iPads, PCs, other games, TV, movie services, and actual life, that addictive combination of features - which keeps you engaged with your Xbox or PS3 for months, perhaps until the next yearly instalment appears - is the closest the games industry comes to alchemy.
I've not had chance to sit down and properly play My Career in 2K13, but the features they've added can only make things even better. All your off-court actions, and your performance in-game, feed into your popularity. Last year it was measured by a simple number: now it's represented by a social media feed (ok, it's Twitter) that represents your popularity by 'number of followers'.
There are 4000 lines of fake social media interactions (Tweets) in the game, and top US pundits and celebs have agreed to their likenesses being used in this feature. So, for example, if you shine in the Play-offs you may get Snoop Dogg following you, bigging up your 3-point abilities (or lamenting the horrible cut of your post-game suit). It's staggering.
As well as taking part in post-game press conferences where your answers will influence your popularity (fans will cheer popular players, but ask for a transfer and they'll boo you right up) and team chemistry (want your team-mates to pass you the ball? Better not lay the blame on that last loss at their door), you can now pull your team's general manager aside and chat with him about 40+ career related topics. These range from petty team disputes ("Look, I just can't play with Kobe, he's such a ball-hog") to offering strategic advice on who to sign during the trade window ("Hey, Ray Allen is unhappy at Boston, we should snap him up at the Heat"). You can now request trades too, and renegotiate your contract.
Then there are the shoes. On court, the shoes are barely visible outside replays, but guess what - you can design your own trainers. The shoe editor lets you create trainers in the same way you'd apply decals to a car in Forza. There are 40+ layers to mess with, meaning you can create incredible designs and patterns, giving your player totally unique footwear. And the coup de grace? Design some NikeID shoes and you can upload your design to the NikeID website and have them create you a real pair of trainers based on your own 'artistic vision'.
So that's My Career. I haven't even mentioned The Association (a deep management mode, a bit like Football Manager), My Team (a new 'player trading' mode that combines fantasy basketball with FIFA Ultimate team and amends the price of players according to how well they're performing in the actual NBA), online (I've been assured it's better this year), the All-star weekend, Legends mode (hey, the dream team and 2012 Olympic teams are both in the game), or even the regular 5 vs 5 quick play mode.
I haven't even talked about how the actual meat and potatoes game has been improved - on what was already an incredible simulation of basketball - or how the developers have used something called Signature skills to make every NBA player unique and as close to their real-life counterpart as possible. I guess we'll find out to what extent the actual gameplay has changed for the better after 100s of hours of play, but from what I've seen all the signs are good.
Want more? If there's enough demand, I'll write more on the actual game - let me know in the comments, or via the Facebook 'Like' button. If I've held your interest until this point I'd suggest that - even if you have no interest in the sport - you're ready to play NBA 2K13. Give it a go. Don't worry if you don't know the rules or who the best players are; you'll learn that along the way by listening to the commentators, training, and just seeing what feels right.
Sure, you could spend your £50 on Black Ops 2, Assassin's Creed 3, Hitman Absolution, Halo 4 or any of the other potentially great games coming this autumn: no one would blame you for that. But they all feel a bit safe. You know how they're going to play, you know exactly what you're getting - predictable greatness. If you don't at least try 2K13 you just might be missing out on the best game you ever played, and the joy of discovering a new favourite; a new passion is much greater than the fun of playing yet another decent game, right?